Writing is scary.
Letting someone read what you’ve written is even scarier.
When you take that bold new step and put your writing in someone else’s hands, two things usually happen.
First, a nauseous wave of panic lurches your stomach, and you hope you didn’t suddenly contract a stomach disease
(or is that just me?) .
Next, you desperately hope the person reading your words is supernaturally kind and gentle, and says good things about what you’ve written. Even if it’s all lies. Because you’re tender, like a seedling, and you know it.
Hard words, at this point, will crush you.
Maybe even make you die.
Fortunately, both hopes are usually satisfied. The nausea passes, and the person you’ve dared to share your writing with is someone kind who likes you and delights in cheering you on.
But what happens when the person you’ve dared to share with doesn’t cheer you on?
What if their feedback is harsh, critical, and discouraging?
What if they take a big steaming dump on your writing?
Allow me to breathe some life into just such a heart-wrenching experience.
When a Friend Dumps On Your Writing
The most damaging piece of advice I’ve ever received came from a fellow writer; a friend.
After over a decade writing non-fiction, my creativity began to gravitate toward fiction.Thrillers in particular. I had written exactly zero stories and didn’t have a hot clue about how to outline and then craft a story from nothing, but I did have a story idea.
Maybe it was my first novel in the making. Maybe it was just a short story.
All I knew was that I was in love.
I thought about that story every day, going starry-eyed as I conjured up a new scene. My smirk grew to a grin as I etched out the character’s voice and facial expressions in my mind.
I felt like a goddess creating a universe all my own.
Ever been there?
As empowering and thrilling as the experience of writing was, I also didn’t know jack about writing excellent fiction.
So I reached out to an experienced fiction author friend who had numerous books to her credit. She, I knew, would have some fantastic pointers. I was eager to glean from her experience.
How lucky for me that we were friends!
I leaned over my coffee, laying out the plot for her, and then asked, “What do you think?”
I imagined my friend smiling.
I imagined her saying “way to go” or “that sounds like a great story!”
But she did not smile.
Instead, she crinkled her nose and curled her lip in disgust, like a foul stench had just wafted in.
Then she shook her head and said, “Don’t write that.”
I admit, it felt like I’d been punched in the gut.
I literally ached for hours.
How could I possibly continue writing the story?
How could I ever share it with others?
What if others would agree that I’m a terrible writer and my stories are awful?
I stuffed the story in a drawer and slinked back to non-fiction writing where I apparently belonged.
I never touched the story again.
What I Learned From Those Who Dumped On my Writing
Blunt criticism is just one way we can feel dumped on.
We writers can be a sensitive bunch when it comes to our delicate creations, and a whole lot of things can “count” to us as hurtful.
A family member not buying our new book or sighing up for our emails can feel like rejection.
Friends and co-workers who never ask, “how’s your book coming?” is the kind of indifference that can feel like a big steamy pile of rejection too.
As an Enneagram #4, and INFJ personality, I’m probably among the most sensitive people I know. The way people perceive my writing is deeply personal to me. Which means my tender little soul gets easily poked and scratched by this sharp and pointy old world.
All that sensitivity is a gift, though. Not only does it enrich the writing itself, infusing it with empathy and understanding, but it also gives me loads of opportunity to practice forgiveness, grace, and how to survive emotional attacks whether real or perceived.
That’s a huge life skill to acquire for any personality.
How to Cope with Criticism of your Writing
1. Consider the Source
When the harsh critique lands, give it its due. There is more to consider than how it feels like a gut punch.
After taking a minute (okay, a day) to finish reeling from the shock, bring logic along and evaluate the critique, the context, and the source.
Are they ‘that guy’?
Is the person currently crapping on you usually the kind of person who is harsh, blunt, or oblivious to others’ emotions?
Maybe they just don’t understand how to encourage others.
Maybe they’re two traits shy of being a sociopath, but they still made it into your circle of readers.
Fine. Make allowances for that.
It doesn’t mean their comments should be dismissed, but it does help soften the blow to know it’s not likely a personal attack, but more about how they normally communicate with others.
Are They Right?
What if they’re right? Even the harshest delivery of a critique is valuable and worth considering if it’s true.
The trick is to consider the truth of facts, not opinions.
For example, the “truth” isn’t their opinion that you’re a crappy writer. That’s an opinion.
(and also, neither helpful nor a permanent state of being.)
Rather, look for truth in facts.
Maybe their feedback points to legitimate legal issues for your memoir.
Maybe the cover image on your book really IS the logo from Hunger Games and it’s a good thing they pointed it out before someone’s legal department gave you a call.
And yes, that plot hole IS something you overlooked. Sure, it means you have to rewrite a third of the book now, but you’re glad to know about it before you hit publish, right?
Is There a Misunderstanding?
So many relationship issues, hurt feelings, and conflicts come from misunderstanding.
Which makes this a perfect place to start evaluating.
The critique could be indicative of:
- the reader misunderstanding what was written (which means clearer writing is needed)
- the reader misunderstanding my expectations of them (which means clearer communication is needed)
- the reader misunderstanding the purpose of the story (which means I add a grain of salt to their comments)
- the writer misunderstanding what the reader meant.
Note: if you’re emotionally triggered even as you’re reading or hearing their feedback, chances are good that you’re misunderstanding it. High emotions have a way of blurring truth. This happens to us all. Thank the fight, flight, or freeze response. But if you know this about yourself, the best thing to to is recognize it. “Oh, hey. My logical brain has shut off and I’m flying high on limbic response right now.” Just recognizing that your claws are out is extremely helpful. (Then you can stop before you act out of that cornered-animal feeling.)
2. Check Myself
Whether the critique is true or not, the emotional impact on our writer heart is real and worthy of addressing.
At all its stages, writing is a major mind game.
When the will to keep writing begins to wither, dig deep into yourself and remind yourself why you began writing that story.
In the writing of my memoir (a nine-year long endeavor!) I frequently battled my worst critic: me.
The barrage of doubt would assault me regularly.
My story isn’t special. No one will care.
This isn’t a story worth telling. It’s not like you survived a Holocaust, Kim. Get over it.
This is very personal — what will people think?
And every time, I survived by hunkering down behind my shield of why.
The reasons I had ever begun to record my story were deeply important to me.
My motivation was to heal. To remember. To admit what happened and how it impacted me.
These were enough to drive me even through the harshest attacks of doubt.
When you’re anchored in your ‘why’, it strengthens you to weather the many storms that hit.
Wherever you are in your writing journey, it’s the WHY that will keep you steady.
3. Make Adjustments
And finally, when you’ve assessed the source, and looked steadily into the mirror, it’s time to make the necessary adjustments.
If it’s communication with the critiquer that was unclear and led to misunderstanding, fix it.
If the critiques are valid and the writing does need tweaking. embrace revision. Revision is 90% of writing anyway.
And, if the communication was clear, the critiques are unfounded, and there’s really nothing to fix except the gaping wound in your ego, then it’s one of those things you get to let go of and move on from. I know. I hate that advice too.
That’s it. That’s my secret to surviving critical feedback.
Fix what you can, remember your why, and then let go of the rest.
Well, there is one more critical piece.
Connecting with people who are supportive, who encourage you, and who can guide your writing with both skill and gentleness is essential to the writer’s journey.
One place to find people like that is inside My Writing Mentor Facebook group. Inside, you can join close to a hundred other writers and benefit from my personal encouragement. It’s free to join, and a great place to have real, deep, personal conversation about writing. If that sounds like it’s for you, click here and come on in!
In the meantime, which of these insights do you think will most help you survive critique of your work in the coming months?
Share in the comments below.